My first contact with Ken Tomlinson was a phone call. He was a top editor at Reader’s Digest, and I was a political reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He wanted me to write a piece on the least savory provisions of President Reagan’s tax-cut legislation. It must have been late 1981, after the bill had been enacted and become part of the Reagan legend.
Ken had no problem with the sweeping tax cuts. He had no problem with Reagan’s role. But he suspected a lot of tax loopholes and preferences had gotten into the bill as the price of getting it through Congress—special interest stuff. Ken was right. The mainstream press had been too busy attacking the tax cuts to notice.
It made for a pretty good article. And I was delighted to have my byline in a mass circulation magazine. I’m not sure what prompted Ken to call me, but I’m grateful he did. Besides, I got paid more than I ever had for an article, even more than the $1,500 kill fee I got from Playboy for a piece on the Supreme Court.
But that’s not my point. Rather, it’s what this tale tells you about Ken as a journalist. Ken, who died on May 1 at age 69, was many things: an owner of racehorses, a baseball fan, a serious Christian, a family man who faced death with unflinching courage. He was a great editor and reporter (his coverage of Vietnam POWs was superlative).
Ken was also a conservative. He usually voted for Republicans. He admired Reagan. None of that, however, kept him from taking on the icons of his political faith. A piece on the dark side of the Reagan tax bill is one of many examples. Another is “Does Oliver North Tell the Truth?” The North article caused heartburn among his Republican friends, including me. Ken saw his role as a conservative journalist, but never as a partisan.
I got to know him personally when he came to Washington in 1982 as Reagan’s director of Voice of America. He arranged for me to appear on VOA’s great radio chat show, Issues in the News. His decision to air daily editorials created a flap because, as Ken insisted, they “should reflect the viewpoint of the party in power.” And they did.
Ken was a crusader against liberal bias. And when he joined the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which lavishes funds on PBS and NPR, and later was chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, liberals fought back furiously. To them, Ken was an interloper. His efforts to bring ideological diversity to public broadcasting were intolerable.
It’s no exaggeration to say Ken was persecuted. He was subjected to official inquiries that focused on picayunish details but were actually aimed at driving him out. He endured years of hostility before stepping down in 2007.
I don’t know how Ken became a fervent baseball fan. But he liked ballplayers, especially minor leaguers. He followed their careers. He often took his sons Will and Lucas to see the Pittsfield Cubs in western Massachusetts, and they befriended a player named Laddie Renfroe. They were thrilled when Renfroe reached the majors—the Chicago Cubs.
Ken and I attended a Bible study for a decade or so. It’s taught by Jerry Leachman, who has a ministry for middle-aged (or older) men. Jerry and Ken developed a deep friendship, and I watched Ken’s faith grow into a strong and palpable part of his life and a comfort in his final months. As death approached, Ken’s faith never flagged.
Roger Ream, who runs The Fund for American Studies in Washington, and I visited Ken at his home in Middleburg, Virginia, two weeks before he died. He brought up the subject of death. He soon grew weary—until the discussion turned to politics and in particular to Tom Cotton, the Arkansas congressman now running for the Senate.
Through his son Lucas, Ken had been introduced to Cotton when he was still in the Army and assigned to the Old Guard at Fort Myer, just outside Washington. That sparked a friendship that continued when Cotton returned to Arkansas in 2009.
Ken wrote, in The Weekly Standard, the first article in a national magazine about Cotton’s political future. Ken urged him to run for the Senate in 2010, but Cotton demurred and instead won a House seat in 2012. With Cotton challenging incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor for the Senate this year, Ken felt vindicated. He told Cotton his advice hadn’t been wrong, “just early.”